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Introducing Port wines   

In a class of its own, Port is a unique fortified wine style hailing from the spectacular terraced vineyards of Portugal’s Douro Valley (pictured above). It has inspired imitations from many of the world’s wine regions, but much as with Champagne, none of the competitors can match a top vintage Port from a good producer. Want to know more about Port wines? Then read on.

Port is a brilliant, unique wine style that derives its flavour, strength and sweetness from the process of adding spirit to still-sweet part-fermented grape must. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that Port represents two rather different wine styles, depending whether the wine is primarily aged in bottle or in cask. Most readers will probably be familiar with the sweet, dark, tannic, richly fruited style of Vintage and Single Quinta Ports which are bottled fairly young, and will then slowly age to mellowness. Less commonly appreciated are the cask-matured Ports known as Tawny or Colheita (these are vintage dated tawnies), which are typically lighter in colour, with soft, spicy nutty flavours and less overt fruitiness. Both styles are worthwhile.

White Ports do exist, and while most aren’t up to much, there are some good ones. But here we’re going to concentrate on the predominant form of Port, which is made from red grapes.

Port’s history
History can get a bit boring, so I’ll keep this brief. It’s hard to dissociate Port from the history of the region that produces it, the Douro. Vines have been grown in the Douro since as far back as Roman times, but this was a poor region, and grapes were grown as part of a polyculture: the horizontal areas of the terraces were reserved for food crops, while vines were planted in the gaps of the terrace walls. Typical old-style terraces are pictured below.

Port itself didn’t exist until the late 17th century, and this is largely the fault of us Brits. The English and Portuguese developed a special trading relationship that flourished off and on for a number of centuries. The Douro’s big break came when war broke out between France and England in 1689, which forced the English to tap new, non-French sources of wine. This led to an increased demand for the newly discovered Port wine. In those days doctoring wine was commonplace, and it was found that the addition of brandy had a twofold benefit: it made the wine more stable, helping it survive the voyage to England without harm, and because the brandy was added before fermentation was completed, it made the wine sweeter. The English developed quite a taste for it. Remember, it’s much easier to make drinkable Port than it is drinkable table wine.

The strong demand for Port led to overproduction and the fraudulent making and labelling of wines, which in turn led to a price collapse in the mid-18th century. To remedy this, the ruthless Marques de Pombal instituted the first world’s first system of origin control and regional classification in 1757, coupled with a blitz on neighbouring regions such as Bairrada which had been supplying faux Port. In the Douro, wines from good cultivation sites (vinho de feitoria) were approved for export, while wines from inferior cultivation sites stayed at home. From this time the Douro wine regulators developed a fondness for rules which has stayed with them to this day.

The 19th century saw increasing development of viticulture in the Douro, with many independent estates (Quintas) making their own wine. Then, along with most of the world’s winegrowing regions, the Douro was hit by the twin plagues of oidium and phylloxera in the second half of the 19th century. This destroyed the livelihoods of many winegrowers, but their misfortune was an opportunity for others, and larger vineyards emerged owned by a handful of producers who purchased the run-down Quintas on the cheap. Got a couple of Douro quintas going at a good price. They’ve got your name written on them. Nice one my son.

This led to a change in the way Port was made and marketed. Power shifted to the hands of shippers, who established themselves in Vila Nova de Gaia (pictured left), over the river from Porto. The shippers developed their own house brands which they matured and marketed from Vila Nova, separating this process from the production in the Douro. This situation progressed to the point where it became law that all port wine exports had to take place from Vila Nova. This protectionist sort of rule consolidated power in the hands of a few. In 1852 Port production was carried out by some 79 Quintas in the Douro. By 1954 it had shifted to 81 Port lodges in Vila Nova. Then, by 1990 this number had reduced to just 27.

Things changed in 1986 when Portugal joined the EU. Producers in the Douro were allowed to export their products independently, albeit with some limiting conditions: vineyards must have at least 150 000 bottles and sales inventory for three years in store. These conditions apply only to Port, and not table wine, but despite their presence the last couple of decades have seen the emergence of a number of new Quintas, such as Infantado, Crasto, Vallado and Vale Dona Maria, who make their own Ports without a presence in Vila Nova.

Port styles

The pinnacle of Port production. On average just four times a decade a vintage is good enough to be ‘declared’ by the major Port houses. They then blend and bottle just the very best of their wines after two years in cask. These wines are intense, sweet, ripe and very tannic in their youth. They develop for many decades in the bottle and start hitting their prime after about 20 years. Justifiably expensive, these wines throw a thick sediment and need to be decanted. The art of making good vintage Port is one of selecting and blending, and traditionally Port houses have relied on expert blenders to bring together the various component wines to make a Port that is balanced, harmonious and ageworthy. Just a small fraction of all Port produced finds its way into the Vintage wines. You won’t see many Vintage ports at your local supermarket, but good independent merchants should have a selection. Interestingly, mature vintage Ports that are ready for drinking (vintages in the 1970s and 80s) are often available cheaper than the more recent vintages, which aren’t yet ready to drink. Recent good vintages include 2000, 1997 and 1994. Expect to pay around £40 a bottle.

Single Quinta
Whereas Vintage Ports are blended with great skill from different vineyard sources, Single Quinta Ports are, as the name suggests, made from single estates. This is where some of the best value Port is to be found. Essentially, they are treated the same as Vintage Port, bottled just two years after harvest, and will also need decanting. In many cases these wines are components of Vintage Ports during vintage years and are then released as Single Quinta wines in non-Vintage years. They might also be from independent estates who bottle their own Ports each year, an increasingly common practice. You’ll find Single Quinta wines in supermarkets and high street wine shops, as well as independent merchants. £20 will secure you a good one.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
These are vintage-style wines bottled after five or six years in cask. From good houses they can be nice wines, but frequently they are uninspiring. Choose carefully. ‘Traditional’ LBVs are worth looking out for: these are bottled earlier, unfiltered, and will throw a sediment: you get some of the character of real vintage Port at a fraction of the price. While you can get an LBV for around £6, it’s probably better to pay £10 and stick to the well known names such as Taylors, Grahams or Dows. My favourites are those by the smaller producers Niepoort, Crasto and Infantado; the Quinta do Noval LBV is also very good.

Tawnies are wood matured Ports that derive much of their flavour from extended ageing in cask. Good ones will be designated as 10-, 20- 30- or even 40-year old, and often offer lovely nutty, spicy complexity and balance. Many commentators argue that the 30- and 40-year old tawnies aren’t worth the premium they command. I’ve tasted excellent wines in both the 10- and 20-year old brackets.

These are vintage-dated tawnies. They’re usually worthwhile, and sometimes brilliant. Colheitas are a bit of a rarity in the UK market, but they’re worth looking out for. They generally don’t improve much in the bottle, so you aren’t meant to put them away for decades, as with Vintage Ports.

‘Vintage Character’ and ‘Ruby’
Bargain basement wines that are best avoided. The same goes fro cheap ‘Tawnies’ that are actually a blend of red and white Ports. Nasty. They are fantastically cheap, but it really isn’t right to expect to get a bottle of Port for £5.

Port seems to have settled into a three-year cycle. With declarations in 1994, 1997 and 2000 it looks like the hot 2003 growing season might have produced the next widespread vintage declaration. 2004 is also looking good, but the Port houses prefer not to declare back-to-back vintages. The good news for the Port trade is that the demand for Vintage and Single Quinta wines is currently stronger than ever. The bad news is that shippers are having problems with their lesser wines, which tend to sell on price rather than on the intrinsic quality of what is in the bottle. Still, at LBV level and above, quality is better than ever these days, which is good news for consumers.

Vintage Port is still fairly priced compared with other great wines, although the recent surge of interest in Port across the Atlantic has pushed the prices of recent releases up a bit. As a consequence, shrewd consumers might want to consider buying mature vintages for current drinking. Typically, it is possible to pick up older Ports that are ready to drink for less than the cost of current releases, and the added benefit is you won’t have to wait 20 years to enjoy them.

Leading Port houses and Quintas

  • Taylor’s

  • Graham

  • Quinta do Noval

  • Fonseca

  • Niepoort

  • Dow’s

  • Warre’s

  • Churchill

  • Quinta de Roriz

  • Quinta do Vesuvio

  • Quinta do Infantado

  • Smith Woodhouse

  • Quinta do Malvedos

  • Quinta do Bomfin

  • Quinta de Vargellas

  • Quinta do Crasto

  • Quinta de la Rosa

  • Quinta da Cavadinha  

Vintage guide

2003 It was an unusually hot summer, even for the Douro. While this created problems for some growers, it looks like 2003 will be a generally successful vintage with some superb, concentrated wines being made. A potential vintage declaration?

2002 Pretty disastrous with almost constant rain through the harvest.

2001 A good, but not exceptional year for Port, with some very good single Quinta wines.

2000 A brilliant vintage with some stunning, concentrated, well balanced Ports. A universal declaration.

1999 Was looking good until the rains arrived. Good Ports here and there, but proceed carefully.

1998 Unsettled harvest weather spoiled what would otherwise have been a great year. Some good single Quinta wines.

1997 A very good but not great year, and a universal declaration: the first since 1994. The 1997 Ports frequently lack the balance of the 2000s and the richness of the 1994s.

Other good vintages: 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985, 1983, 1980, 1977.   

see also: tasting notes of Portuguese wines; Table wines from the Douro; Photographs from the Douro

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